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The Value of Writing Shorter Chapters

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, Jun 25, 2013.

  1. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

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    I recently came across this fascinating article by author Caleb Pirtle:

    Do you write your chapters too long? Are you still stuck in the old days? - Venture Galleries

    In it he recounts an interview that he conducted with James Patterson. Patterson had started writing shorter chapters, just 3-4 pages long, because he discovered that it kept readers reading.

    Here's a quote from Patterson:

    I recommend giving this article a read in it's entirety.

    How do you feel about shorter chapters in your books?
     
  2. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    I like Patterson's books okay, but the shorter chapters, frankly, kind of annoy me. Rather than making me eager to turn the page, it just comes off as choppy, and makes it seem like very little happens in each one. But maybe he's an extreme example. I think an intermediate length might be better -- if twenty pages is too long for some, and three or four is too short, ten might be better as a compromise.
     
    Weaver likes this.
  3. Xaysai

    Xaysai Inkling

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    Chapter length is a weird thing for me and my like or dislike of length is completely based on the author's writing style, and more specifically to the POV I am following.

    For instance, I love Patrick Rothfuss, and I would happily read a book written by him that is one massive 400 page chapter.

    However, for something like Dune, I need a change of scenery every 10 pages or so : )

    With that being said, I've never been a "chapter to chapter" reader. When I am done reading, I throw the bookmark in and set it down.
     
  4. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I agree with Ireth. Really short chapters, or even too many scene breaks, make it feel incomplete and choppy. Assuming 250wpp, 3-4 pages equals 750-1000 words. That's pretty short for a scene and means a single scene per chapter.

    I can see it for Patterson's genre of thrillers, though. The idea is to be fast paced. In epic fantasy, not so much...
     
  5. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I read somewhere, and if I can remember I'll share it, that the modern consumer has a shorter attention span. That is why anthologies are making (as the article suggested) a comeback. People want to spend there 15 to 30 minute bus/taxi/whatever reading, understanding the plot, and come to a resolution.

    Going along the same vein, short chapters may appeal to the modern reader.

    To me, chapters are irrelevant. It's an extra page flip. What matters is how much attention an author devotes to my favorite character.
     
  6. Truepinkas

    Truepinkas Dreamer

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    When I first started my writing project I googled things like average length of a novel, length of a chapter number of words per page and as many other metrics as I could think of. I was obsessed very briefly with filling out chapters or editing them down to hit my percieved 'sweet spot'. I have now thrown that out and realized I shouldn't write to metrics, but should write to the story.

    What sort of pace is your book, how much tension are you building, have you recently released a tention point. To me it is all about flow. Short chapters are either for getting more hooks in my reader or to ratchet up the tention. Longer chapters might help them catch their breath.

    Over all Patterson makes some good points, but there is no one size that fits all. The Black Company had what, like seven chapters? I personally devoured it... know your story, know your audience and pace accordingly.

    (Please excuse my phone typing...)
     
  7. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    I HATE extra-short chapters. It doesn't feel like the story is going faster; it feels like I'm getting less story. Other than that, I don't care how long a chapter is.

    I don't think that someone with a 'short attention span' is going to be much interested in a 120K-word novel anyway.
     
  8. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    It's one more thing that ought to dovetail into a writer's overall style.

    One thing I sometimes point out though: if the chapters are short, the reader loses the assumption that a scene will end with this chapter, or at most the next one-- and starts to realize that if a long scene could be split between three or five chapters it could keep going for ten or twenty or the whole remainder of the book, one bite-sized piece at a time. Of course sustaining any extra-long scene is much more about concept and skill than about chapter labeling, but it's one barrier removed.

    (Me, I write 5000ish-word chapters that create their own mini-arc and have some time to take my reader through it. But sometimes I wonder...)
     
  9. Sheriff Woody

    Sheriff Woody Troubadour

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    Totally agree.

    I see the end of a chapter as an opportunity for a big moment. When you have 150 chapters of 3 pages each, how important can each moment be? That's devaluing the story with a marketing gimmick. Not cool.
     
  10. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    I think it depends completely on the book and the writer. Some stories are suited to long chapters and some are suited to short.

    My own style has developed along the following lines - a chapter is typically 7 - 10 ms pages long but is typically broken up into several sub-chunks, often skipping from POV to POV. Something happens to kick the story along in every sub-chunk and every chapter ends with a revelation AND a question.

    I'm told that this makes my books hard to put down, precisely for the reasons suggested by the OP. People have actually said to me that the sub-chunks make it really hard to stop reading - because there are numerous plot threads - and every time they go to put the book down they see the next sub-chunk is about a character and plot thread that is suddenly even more intriguing due to what they've just learned in another chunk.

    Having said all that, some of my favourite writers use (or used) long chapters and they work brilliantly. Bernard Cornwell uses very long chapters in the Sharpe series, and you don't even notice. Orwell used long chapters and he is one of the most immersive writers in history.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Every writing rule works for some author.
    Every writing rule doesn't work for some author.
    Don't take either of them too seriously.

    I don't buy Patterson's argument, mainly because I seriously doubt many people flip forward in a book to see how long is the next chapter. Especially for night reading, I judge by when I have fallen asleep in the middle of a paragraph. :)

    Also, I think the medium affects this calculus. The dynamic may work one way for a physical book and another way for an e-reader, and yet another way for web pages. I know that when I read on my phone, chapters are utterly irrelevant. What matters is scenes.
     
    Weaver likes this.
  12. C Hollis

    C Hollis Troubadour

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    I am one of those that will read till the end of a chapter, unless it's just far too difficult to keep my eyes open. With that said, this appears, to me, to be a very insecure statement.

    Shouldn't the story engage regardless of scene/chapter length? If the story engages me, I WILL return to the book after I set it down.

    Obviously his books are engaging, but I doubt very much that it has to do with how many pages are in his chapters. I take this statement as something you would hear from a normal insecure writer. No matter how many people tell us our books are good, we still question our abilities.
     
    Weaver likes this.
  13. AnnaBlixt

    AnnaBlixt Minstrel

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    Short chapters kindof bug me. They tend to make the book feel fragmented. Some events need more space than 3-4 pages. Some need 20-30.

    I find it exhausting to read short chapters. If I read a long chapter of 20 pages, I will finish it even if I get a bit tired after 10. But if the 20 page chapter was divided into 5 short chapters, I would be given 5 times as many chances to bail out and stop reading.
     
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